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Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 18:04 UK

Why Samak's removal solves little

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

A protester holds a banner of former leader Samak Sundaravej on 12 September 2008
Weeks of pressure have finally forced PM Samak Sundaravej out

After a rollercoaster three days, when Samak Sundaravej's fortunes seemed to change by the hour, he has gone.

The bluntly-spoken - some would say downright rude - 73-year-old veteran of Thai politics was always going to be a controversial prime minister, and so he proved.

He seemed an unlikely choice as leader for the People Power Party (PPP) when he was chosen last year, at the request of former prime minister and chief financier Thaksin Shinawatra.

A fiery, conservative agitator in the 1970s, he was blamed for stirring up right-wing vigilante groups who attacked and lynched students at Thammasat University in October 1976.

Dozens died, and hundreds of survivors fled to join communist rebels in the jungles of north and north-eastern Thailand.

Many of those left-wing activists became senior figures in Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. They made uncomfortable bedfellows with Mr Samak in TRT's successor, the PPP.

Mr Samak provoked outrage when he made light of those events after becoming prime minister this year. He upset journalists with his sometime coarse and aggressive responses to their questions.

He unsettled an already jittery country with his off-the-cuff remarks about possible coups. His management of a mediocre cabinet was patchy, at best.

But he brought impeccable royalist credentials to a party suspected by some of republican tendencies - Mr Samak's family has strong ties to the palace.

And he has proved remarkably resilient recently in the face of pressure from a well-funded protest movement, top army commanders and members of the king's advisory Privy Council to resign.

These were valuable qualities for a party that saw itself as under attack from the powerful conservative establishment in Thailand, and help explain why the PPP leadership stood by Mr Samak for so long.

Possible successors

Now he has accepted the inevitable - a sizeable bloc of PPP MPs from the north-east refused to support him, as did the party's five coalition partners - who will replace him?

Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and Justice Minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) on 10 September 2008
So far there are three possible candidates to succeed Mr Samak

The two most likely candidates appear to be Sompong Amornwiwat and Somchai Wongsawat. Neither has Mr Samak's charisma and thick skin. Of the two, Mr Sompong, the current justice minister, is the more plausible candidate.

A career politician from Mr Thaksin's home town Chiang Mai, he has held several ministerial positions in the past but managed to keep a low enough profile to avoid being banned in the Constitutional Court decision that hit 111 executives of Mr Thaksin's party last year.

He has a far less abrasive manner than Mr Samak, and is considered an effective conciliator among the different factions of the PPP, which have openly split over Mr Samak in recent days.

Mr Somchai is a former judge and a long-time bureaucrat who has been acting prime minister this week.

Reserved to the point of timidity, he has often seemed overwhelmed by the tumultuous events of the past few days, and is additionally handicapped by being married to Thaksin Shinawatra's favourite sister.

Another possible candidate is Surapong Suebwonglee, the current finance minister, and one of the former leftists who fled to the jungle in 1976 - but his prospects appear remote at the moment, according to PPP sources.

Challenges ahead

Whoever replaces Mr Samak will confront some formidable obstacles. The first will be to end the crisis that has paralysed the government for much of this year.

The next prime minister will have to find a way to either isolate the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose followers still occupy the seat of government in central Bangkok, or persuade it to back down.

A protester walks past a sign attacking former leader Thaksin Shinawatra on 12 September 2008
Thousands of PAD protesters remain on the streets of Bangkok

The PAD leaders say they will keep up their protests until there is more substantial reform of the political system.

They have tapped into a deep vein of disillusionment among the Thai middle class with existing political arrangements, and they have the backing of some powerful figures within royalist and military circles.

The clear involvement of Thaksin Shinawatra in recent PPP decision-making will make that job tougher. Far more than Mr Samak, he is the hate-figure that mobilizes much of the PAD's support.

Now in self-imposed exile in the UK, he is still a significant party financier, and remains very popular in the countryside of the north and north-east.

But his decision to flee Thailand before facing verdicts in a number of corruption cases has left him more disliked and mistrusted by many middle class Thais than ever.

The PPP does not even have the option of dissolving parliament and renewing its mandate through a general election. It has been caught out by the stringent rules governing politicians and their parties written into last year's constitution.

One of the PPP's top officials was found guilty of vote-buying earlier this year, and the same Constitutional Court that found Mr Samak's cooking programmes so objectionable will soon rule on whether the entire party should be dissolved.

If it is, the PPP has the option of re-forming under a different name - but its candidates would not be allowed to contest any election for 90 days. Until that case is concluded, calling an election is too risky.

Divided society

Far more serious for Thailand is the deep rift over how governments should be chosen, and then held to account.

The PAD argues that vote-buying and voter ignorance in the PPP's rural strongholds mean its election victory last year was illegitimate. Some of its leaders now say a largely appointed parliament would be more suitable for Thailand.

They see their occupation of the prime minister's office complex as a desperate, last-ditch action to restrain a government hell-bent on entrenching its hold on power by amending the constitution.

On the PPP side there is a widespread perception that the courts, which have been intervening aggressively to curb political irregularities, are taking sides to defend a conservative, royalist class against the rising demands of poor and rural Thais for a greater say and a greater share of national wealth.

They see the PAD's occupation of the prime minister's office complex as a blatantly illegal assault on an elected government. The refusal of the army to help restore order appears to them to be further evidence of complicity between different arms of the establishment.

In times gone by both sides might have looked to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to mediate. But, at 80 years old, the much-loved monarch stays largely out of view these days, and is apparently reluctant to be drawn in.

No-one else in the royal family can match his moral authority. And there are few other public figures with the stature to act as mediators. The political upheavals of the past few days are unlikely to be the last.

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